Friday, February 3, 2017

Rookies in the Big League

When the world faced the dreadful reality of a new Bannon-Trump regime in Washington, dark clouds formed everywhere.  One of the darkest hovered over the Middle East.

Here was a team of rookies, inexperienced in government, clueless about diplomacy, dismissive of tradition, ignorant of history,  hostile to protocol and deliberately uncivil to foreign leaders, approaching the world’s most volatile powderkeg with a fistful of matches.

Hints that had emerged during the election campaign were not helpful.  Israel, it seemed, had carte blanche to commit the worst sort of crimes against humanity in Palestine and Bibi Netanyahu, through the offices of Jared Kushner, appeared likely to become de facto Secretary of State in Trumpistan.

Now suddenly, the titular head of Trumpistan has slapped the wrist of the Israeli leader for taking too many liberties in launching new settlements in Palestine.  Was this a whim or a dramatic policy shift?  Nobody knows.

Iran, target of assorted insults from people who would have had difficulty finding the Islamic republic on a map, wondered how the rhetoric would translate when the new regime inherited the nuclear accord between Iran and the the so-called P5+1 — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) plus Germany.  The accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is in its second year of implementation and has functioned without a hiccup — until now.

With a vocabulary limited to scatological slang, schoolyard bully-talk and the adjectives of self-aggrandizement, the leader of Trumpistan has been having difficulty making himself understood around the world.  Mainly he has succeeded in irritating people who have been staunch allies of the United States.

There is, however, general agreement that he has threatened to break up the JCPOA.  Of course he can’t do that all by himself, but he could unilaterally withdraw from it.  Such a rash act would immediately trigger an international crisis, since the JCPOA was negotiated by and approved by the entire United Nations Security Council.  It would put the new regime in conflict with most of the European Union and with China, and quite possibly damage all the cozy-posey Trumpistan has been conducting with Russia. 

Iran is much more experienced and adept at playing one power against another than the Trumpistan rookies.  This isn’t a business deal to build a golf course; this is a face-off with countries that hold most of the nuclear weapons in the world.  During the Cold War, Iran used the military and political clout of the United States to dissuade the Soviet Union from invading Iran.  After the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Iranians parleyed with Germany, France and the United Kingdom to dodge a conflict with the United States.  Against that backdrop it took long and excruciating years of diplomacy to create the P5+1 coalition that resolved the Iran nuclear crisis.

The international community strongly supports that accord.  Already, as one influential European newspaper put it, much of the world sees the new U.S. regime as “standing alone against all of us.”   Unilateral action against the JCPOA would further isolate Trumpistan, whose lleadership likes to use business metaphors in foreign policy. Bannon-Trump have repeatedly called the JCPOA “a terrible deal” and hinted that they could cut a better one, but that’s really just one more of their fantasies.

The current agreement was the product of long, difficult negotiations among multiple parties. It significantly curtailed Iran's enrichment capabilities and lifted economic sanctions, allowing businesses in Europe and around the world to benefit.  Why would the European partners agree to try to amend a deal that already gives them what they need? Moreover, the accord was controversial in Iran, where the hard-liners would pounce if moderate President Hassan Rouhani even hinted at renegotiating and risking a more punitive result. It’s dloubtful that even America’s allies in the Middle East would want to renegotiate. The former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki al-Faisal said recently, “I don't think (Trump) should scrap it. It's been worked on for many years and the general consensus in the world, not just the United States, is that it has achieved an objective, which is a 15-year hiatus in the program.”

Last Sunday’s ballistic missile test in Iran further muddies the water.  United Nations Resolution 2231, which went into effect July 20, 2015, declares that Iran is “"called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

The Americans went bonkers, with their tweeter in chief declaring that “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.”  Whatever that means.  Iran of course, denied that it was in violation of 2231, insisting that its missile was defensive and not designed to carry nuclear weapons.  

The U.N.called a meeting on Tuesday last.  Trumpistan’s new ambassador there, a hack politician from South Carolina, spelled out the American charges.  The U.N. did the prudent thing: it appointed a committee to study the matter.

Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath. Do cross your fingers, though.  The world may need some luck on this one.

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